[Editor’s Note: Mark Yamane is a 2019 recipient of the NVCF Shiro Kashino Memorial Scholarship. He is the son of Daisy and Craig Yamane and the grandson of Charlotte and NVC member George Yamane.]
I didn’t know I was Japanese until second grade.
This is an odd way to start an essay on the Nisei Veterans’ legacy, but I feel this is important to establish as I write about the hardships my grandparents were forced to persevere through for my future, and how I became proud of my Japanese heritage.
When I found out I was Japanese in second grade, I had no idea what it meant. Most of my friends were white, and I never felt different. I didn’t understand what was going on when we helped sell raffle tickets at an NVC Chow Mein Dinner or when my dad was Santa at the NVC Christmas parties.
In seventh grade, I took Japanese to fulfill my foreign language requirement. Nothing made me feel less Japanese than learning about Japanese traditions I’d never heard of, and not feeling comfortable speaking Japanese because of my “American” accent. However, as I got older, I started to understand the weight of the stories my grandparents told me, and the stories I heard about them, on what they had to go through for my family to be the way it is today.
Grandpa Yamane moved back to Japan when he was 13 to care for his grandmother, and almost died during World War II because of the scarcity of food and medicines in Japan. Grandma Yamane was relocated to Rowher Relocation Camp in Arkansas before she was even a teenager. At 11, Grandpa Taira was playing in a field with some friends when he saw Japanese planes fly over Oahu to bomb Pearl Harbor. And Grandma Taira was just born when World War II began. When I was 13, I had just grown out of my Pokémon phase and I was self-conscious about my acne.
Both of my grandpas later served during the Korean War, fighting for a country that, less than a decade prior, oppressed their race with no remorse. While this on its own is very impressive, what has always amazed me is the way they lived their lives to the fullest following the war.
Grandpa Yamane was an engineer and was awarded the Washington State Engineer of the Year award in 1990, he led a cub scout and boy scout troop, and he raised four sons – the youngest of whom I am named after because he was killed in action serving as an Army Ranger in Grenada. Grandpa was extremely active as a commander in the NVC. He participated in every event and started the NVC karaoke club because of his passion for singing.
Grandpa Taira earned an electrical engineering degree because he was unhappy as a chemical engineer. He started a construction business and built 10 houses, learned carpentry out of necessity because he couldn’t afford to buy a completed house, was a lifetime member of the NVC, and gardened often in his free time. Grandpa Taira passed in January 2017, so I was able to know him better. He didn’t speak much, but whenever he did, I understood that he was extremely intelligent. It blew my mind in elementary school when I was stuck on a math problem at my grandparents’ house, and he knew how many feet are in a mile off the top of his head.
I cannot imagine how difficult life was for my grandparents while they were growing up, much less how they managed to prosper the way they did after the fact. Their stories make me proud to be Japanese and inspire me to achieve as much as I can in my lifetime. People often ask me why I’m busy all the time. My response is that any time I do nothing is a missed opportunity. Even in college now, some of my friends call me a “busy-holic.”
I know nothing I do could come close to matching the astounding achievements that my grandparents have made, but I look to what they’ve accomplished as inspiration to make the most out of anything I’m a part of. These examples of drive and determination through any possible hardship are the Nisei veterans’ legacy to me. If they could do all those things, I might as well try. This mindset has allowed me to push myself further than I could ever imagine, and I hope to inspire future generations in the same way my grandparents do for me.